Gareth Roberts

Gareth Roberts is a screenwriter and novelist, best known for his work on Doctor Who.

June 14, 2019

“Some opinions kill vulnerable people!” “There should be consequences for being an awful human being!” “We shouldn’t give people with dangerous views a platform!”

As I read these condemnations on Twitter, I struggled to recall the despicable stance I had espoused. Had I advocated the random euthanising of toddlers? Suggested it was reasonable to inject sleeping pensioners with methamphetamine? Waged a campaign to kick kittens in the teeth?

No. What I had said to rouse this chorus of internet disgust, was that men aren’t women. I’d observed that men who claim to be women seem often to have a restricted view of what women are. I had said all this in a statement in response to being depublished from a collection of short stories about Doctor Who, a whimsical children’s television programme.

This is a story of how the selling of Doctor Who got taken over by the woke. It acts, I think, as a curious microcosm of the mania that’s infected the institutions of public and cultural life across the West.

For most of its life, Doctor Who has been the kind of thing you’d expect: cheerfully liberal, middlebrow mainstream. It has typical BBC values bubbling away at low level – the UN is always good, any kind of corporation is inherently evil, etc. It’s hardly ever been outspokenly political, though one script editor in the Eighties did try to bring down the Thatcher government with it.

As for the Doctor’s moral code – he doesn’t use guns or knives against his enemies. This is for the same reason that Mr Tumble and the Octonauts don’t; because children aren’t to be encouraged to shoot or stab people. But the Doctor has used other methods to see off his non-human enemies – gassing, bombing, shoving into liquid ice, etc. (Nobody ever points out this screaming hypocrisy because it’s all part of the fun.)

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The revived series – the New Testament, if you will – has foregrounded the Doctor’s morality over and over again. This was perhaps inevitable, given the ‘punch the air’ Hollywoodisation of our popular culture. The Old Testament Doctor was never pious or mawkish, which cannot be said of the New. What was devised as a Saturday treat, a chance for adults to feel frivolous and for kids to feel grown up after a hard week, has become an arena for exploring ethical notions, in a flagship BBC show from top-drawer writers. This is a weight it was never designed to bear.

Some of the fans, though, are taking this seriously as a credo, and before anything else a new religion needs heretics. That what was particularly interesting about the tone of the denouncing I was on the receiving end of. It was all couched along the lines of the Doctor’s moral code.

“The Doctor would NEVER stand for this! This is the whole ethos of the show – fighting the good fight, being who you want to be. How could anyone who enjoys the show not feel the same?”

The dramatic device of the Doctor making people morally ‘better’, a major part of its return, with hindsight seems like a beacon for lost souls. In a fleeting TV drama this is stirring stuff. But in the real world it had been received in a way never intended, offering confirmation to neurotics and narcissists. In an existence that feels random and rudderless what they heard was ‘you are special, unquestionably good, and anyone who disagrees is a monster’.

What amplified this signal even more was the behaviour of the BBC’s commercial wing, BBC Studios (formerly BBC Worldwide).

In the early years of the revival, the must-have toys and kids’ ephemera of the nation were Doctor Who-related; the Cybermen voice-changer mask was a best seller at Christmas 2006, and action figures, comics and magazines were lapped up at a prodigious rate.

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The books I wrote at that time sold many, many thousands. Inevitably this couldn’t be sustained – children are notoriously fickle and reject the fads of their older siblings.

Floundering, the BBC looked not to recapture their mass child audience but turned instead to the people that were still responding – a small but very loud section of the woke internet. They reoriented their marketing to target this audience, adopting its slang on the official twitter account, plucking its YouTubers to front their product.

When I was working on Doctor Who around ten years ago, it was an unwritten law that the highly engaged, highly entitled, highly strung breed of fans were to be ignored as much as possible. Never feed a starving dog! But, then, BBC Studios made the classic embarrassing middle-aged error of assuming a loud, small group of young people are representative of all young people.

The trouble is, if you encourage the woke, then your enterprise will never be pure enough. It can only get more bizarre, more out of touch. And this is what happened to the Dr Who fan base: a band of happy hobbyists were taken over by what is now termed ‘the Doctor Who community’, which is policed vigorously. I see this sort of infiltration across our culture, to the extent that everybody from the Conservative Party to Budweiser Beer is in lockstep with frankly batty ideas, especially regarding gender and identity.

So we come to the sorry but, yes, funny tale of my defenestration, when Ebury Books, parent company to BBC Books, said my views “conflict with our values as a publisher“. What these weasel words actually mean is they are terrified of the vampire they admitted over their threshold.

It would seem only those who subscribe to these nebulous ‘values’ can be published. I assume the values of Ebury correlate perfectly with my fellow Doctor Who author, trans woman Juno Dawson, who said in Attitude Magazine that she “just wanted to be fucked like a woman, it’s not about what hole it goes in”. To say nothing of the frantic scramble by Penguin (Ebury’s parent company) to justify their recent publication of the ramblings of anti-semitic conspiracy theorist Pedro Baños. My opinions on identity politics, though, are unacceptable.

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As Trotsky so nearly said, I may not be interested in the culture war but the culture war is interested in me. How to fight it? How to win it? I haven’t the faintest clue where to even begin.

I used to wonder what happened to all the repressed, uptight people I remembered from my youth. The self-deniers, the quivering zealots, the senior prefects and hall monitors. The revellers in victimhood, moral certainty and sententiousness, who enjoy nothing better than a good old ban, where did they go? Turns out, they never left us. They went to Uni, got woke, and became our masters.

And even with all the resources of Gallifrey, the miracle of the Tardis and the wisdom of the Time Lords, the Doctor never saw that future coming.